"One of the greatest ironies of the information technology revolution is that while the computer was conceived and born in the field of pure mathematics, through the genius of giants such as John von Neumann and Alan Turing, until recently this marvelous technology had only a minor impact within the field that gave it birth." So begins Experimentation in Mathematics, a book by Jonathan M. Borwein and David H. Bailey due out in September that documents how all that has begun to change. Computers, once looked on by mathematical researchers with disdain as mere calculators, have gained enough power to enable an entirely new way to make fundamental discoveries: by running experiments and observing what happens.
The first clear evidence of this shift emerged in 1996. Bailey, who is chief technologist at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center in Berkeley, Calif., and several colleagues developed a computer program that could uncover integer relations among long chains of real numbers. It was a problem that had long vexed mathematicians. Euclid discovered the first integer relation scheme--a way to work out the greatest common divisor of any two integers--around 300 B.C. But it wasn't until 1977 that Helaman Ferguson and Rodney W. Forcade at last found a method to detect relations among an arbitrarily large set of numbers. Building on that work, in 1995 Bailey's group turned its computers loose on some of the fundamental constants of math, such as log 2 and pi.
This article was originally published with the title A Digital Slice of Pi.